The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News February 24, 2006

Buying Books is Hard to Do
Many Sources for Obtaining Textbooks: All Are Complicated
Book Look: First-year Anna Corichi warily picks up her books for this semester.

Books weigh us down, physically and financially. They bend our spines and tug at our wallets. This semester, I decided to find out just how heavy this burden lies on the student body, so I went to the most logical location: The Oberlin Bookstore.

“$560. That’s the largest I got,” Oberlin Bookstore employee Megan Greszler told me when I asked for the largest total her register saw during the beginning of semester rush. “I heard rumors of $700, though.”

If those numbers seem a little exorbitant to you, you’re not alone. According to a Government Accountability Office report released last June, college textbook costs have been rising at a rate of six percent per year for the past 20 years. That’s twice the rate of inflation.

The 50 page report, titled “College Textbooks; Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price,” reflects government research into the problem of rising textbook costs. It’s easy to understand its interest, given that half of all undergraduates receive some form of federal aid.

The report explains that an increased rate of text revisions on the part of publishers — every three to four years instead of the moderate five to six that was common 20 years ago — combined with “bundling” of extra materials such as CDs and websites have helped to drive up the prices. These methods also make it more difficult for students to return books even a few weeks after a purchase, for bundled materials are often found in shrink-wrapped books that are worthless to the publisher once the plastic is torn.

A quick stroll around the college-devoted basement of the bookstore confirms these claims: I find a giant art history text with a sticker that reads “combined/revised with CD” for $120 and the sixth edition of an organic chemistry book for a whopping $163. Its sticker boasts: “This text is packaged with scientific software prepared by SPARTAN.”

In the Conservatory section, two tiny, spiral-bound books stand out as the priciest: a training song book on sight-singing and Studying Rhythm by Anne C. Hall.

“Every conservatory person has to have these two books,” said Andrew Parsons, bookstore employee and violin performance major. Parsons is not enrolled at the moment. “You technically use them for four years, but you have to buy the new editions when they come out,” Parsons continued. “That happened to me once.”

The Oberlin Bookstore, managed by Barnes and Noble College Bookstores, is tied to the College by a contract which states that professors will provide the store with their adoption lists — that is, the list of chosen texts — for the following semester every mid-spring and fall.

“You would not have a bookstore otherwise,” Ron Watts, vice-president for finance, explained. “That’s standard.”

Though the bookstore prices may seem very high, its convenience often outweighs other modes of purchasing books for Oberlin students.

I went to Mindfair to find out how much of a viable alternative it was to the Barnes and Noble-owned bookstore. While Mindfair does not have the contractual advantages of its competitor, it could still collect adoption lists from professors if it wanted to, right?

“We haven’t really pushed the issue because we do have space and cash constraints,” said Krysta Long, who owns Mindfair and Ben Franklin, and whose father managed the now defunct Book Co-op for 32 years.

“It can be a significant investment,” Long said, noting that even the Barnes and Noble-run bookstore is taking a risk. “College students today have a really different view about course materials and whether they really have to read them.”

But Mindfair can still be a money-saving resource for some. “We are working with some professors,” said Long. “[We carry] most non-core textbooks for departments like environmental studies and English.”

There are possibilities for additional book venues in Oberlin. In the ’80s and earlier, Long said, college students used to run their own used book sale in Wilder. And as recently as 1999, students were able to purchase books through the Book Co-op, which existed for 60 years before succumbing to financial strain caused by a high mortgage and an increase in shoplifting in the ’90s. While I find the demise of a non-profit lamentable, my real question is, did its existence actually save students money?

“As a co-op, it gave discounts to people — including students — who belonged to the organization,” professor of rhetoric and composition Leonard Podis said. But both Long and the Review archives concur that when the Co-op was around, it was just as much a target for student criticism over price as the bookstore is today.

Some students abandon the idea of buying local altogether and turn to — where else? — the internet.

“I use,” said Colin B., senior computer science major and Review employee. “It’s run by Ebay and the books are cheap. The down-side is that you don’t really know where your books are coming from.”

Some of these books come from, say, India. The practice of buying overseas is far from unheard of. As the GAO report explains, the price of texts is often considerably lower abroad.

“Publishers typically incur substantial costs in order to develop textbooks, but once these development costs have been undertaken, the additional cost of producing more copies is quite low,” reads the report. “As a result, a publisher may be able to profitably sell textbooks in one country at prices that are closer to actual costs.”

The Internet has broken-down the traditional barrier of the re-entry of these texts into the US market. The savings can be great: Colin B. saved $90 on one book alone. Erica Matson, junior law and society major, takes a safer rout.

“I usually use Amazon. It’s the biggest and the easiest,” she said. Because lets you pay other vendors through them, there is no monetary risk.

“Things usually get here within a week or two,” Matson said. “You can buy from the bookstore and then return them within the week. You can either read ahead or borrow books from the library or borrow from your friends.”

It all seemed rather complicated to me: buying books, returning books, waiting for your copy to arrive — yet Matson has been using this method for six semesters.“It works pretty well,” she assured me. “Books are still hideously expensive. Sometimes it’s not worth the wait or the shipping.”

What could be better than saving money online? Not spending any at all.

“One piece of music costs about $20, normally, but I borrow from the library to save a lot,” said Yun Le Feng, first-year bassoon performance major.

“There [are] a lot of [ways] for students not to purchases books,” said Julie Weir, reserve room librarian. “It might be on reserve, and it might be on OhioLINK.”

Using OhioLINK to obtain textbooks you intend to keep for a whole semester, however, may be an abuse of the system. Yes, you can borrow books through OhioLINK for three weeks at a time and renew them up to four times, so it is possible to keep a book for 15 weeks, but...

“It’s not exactly what the system was designed for,” said Candi Clevenger, communications manager for OhioLINK. The system was created to address the shortage of space in Ohio libraries and the state’s inability to fund building expansion.

“When it comes to textbooks there is a limited supply and a high demand for them,” Clevenger said. Certain books may be hard to track down. Also, if your OhioLINK book is requested by another Ohio student, you are forced to return it or face fines.

“We have to balance the needs of someone who needs a quote for a paper due next week with those of someone who wants to keep [the book] for a whole quarter,” she said. So, OhioLINK may not be the best course of action. But the reserve room?

“Our reserve facility is very big compared to other schools,” Weir said. She explained that at many schools, you’ would have to purchase all of your books plus a “course pack:” all of the photocopied materials we download so readily from Blackboard and Electronic Reserve. This can cost up to $50.

The library’s policy is to put on reserve all the copies it already owns of a text being used for a class. If it doesn’t own any, it purchases one copy. This frees up the book for OhioLINK access, as that service doesn’t allow students to request materials found in the stacks of their home library. More traditional or conventionally used textbooks, like those found in introductory and science courses, are often brought over to the reserve room by the professors themselves.

What may come as a surprise is how much more willing the library is to purchase the books that represent merely optional reading than they are the required texts.

“As long as it’s not something you guys are required to purchase, we’ll purchase one copy for every eight to ten students,” Weir said.

“Over the past few years I’ve seen less faculty requesting things for reserve,” Weir explained. “Part of this may be that they are using the electronic reserve as well.”

But this is not always the case, as first-year and Review copy-editor Matt O’Connell learned the hard way.

“I paid $20 [for a book] to read one chapter, and it wasn’t on reserve. Kind of frustrating,” O’Connell said. Unlike the bookstore, the reserve room does not request the book lists until mere weeks before the start of a semester.

“Students should encourage their faculty to come put things on reserve,” Weir said. “Unless they come to us, we don’t even know what you guys are reading.”

Weir also noted that many professors are very conscientious about book prices when choosing which books to put on reserve and which to require that students purchase.

A large reserve room and conscientious professors. Great! What else you got?

“We give consideration to book expenses when calculating student expenses and awarding financial aid, however the institution does not directly pay for students books: we don’t cut a check to the bookstore,” deirector of financial aid Rob Reddy said.

Financial aid is divided up among billable and non-billable charges. The $760 Financial Aid estimates your books will cost belong to the non-billable category. Financial Aid applies first and foremost to all billable costs, which, despite the College’s contract with the bookstore and the relative importance of books to the college experience, therefore cannot include the cost of books.

“It’s not like tuition, which is set,” Watts explained. Books, like travel costs, fluctuate with every student. This does not mean that financial aid never applies to your books, however.

“When aid is awarded more than direct billables, this is in consideration for the students ability to pay for all expenses having to do with Oberlin,” said Reddy. “In this case, the student is deemed as so needy that we accommodate travel and books.”

Students in this situation would have to request this from student accounts, which would send a check to the student’s OCMR within a week or two. By this time, however, a student may be two weeks into classes.

Even if you are not accustomed to this sort of refund, you can still be compensated for books during a really tough semester.

“A student could come to us and say that books were a lot this semester. We would ask them to document this and then we’d adjust their [financial aid] budget,” Reddy said.

So publishers drive up price with extras students may never use and new editions that hinder the used-book market, and every alternative, from OhioLINK to Ebay, has its drawbacks. Is there anything in this situation Oberlin can control?

“The big trick is getting the book list in time for the buy-back,” Watts said.

“We try to get as many orders in as possible. We’re able to buy more books off of students and get more used books for our students,” said Abby Bellis, manager of the Oberlin bookstore.

This makes a difference not only to students who recoup some of their original book costs by selling their books back to the bookstore, but to the bookstore as well. It allows the store to order used books. When professors do not get their lists to the bookstore on time, the overall supply of used books available from the store’s wholesaler is depleted by all the other college bookstores in the country, who likely have requested similar books. When they do finally receive some of their orders, it is often too late to sell them.

“We’ve been making a really big push for [earlier] book orders. Last semester we had 40 percent of book orders in on time,” Bellis said.

“From any book store’s standpoint, the important issue is to get the adoption list,” said Watts. “That’s not [the] faculty’s priority. They don’t have the time for this. But it’s important and it’s big dollars.”

He lamented that the purchasing system wasn’t easier for students.

“I think eventually it will go to a digital distribution,” he said.

But for now, the most we can hope for is the new version of Blackboard the College will get this summer.


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